This is much more of a personal post for me, but it feels like an ok time to post it. You might have seen that my dad died recently. He died of cancer, a diagnosis he only knew not even five weeks before his death. I’ve had various interactions with people at all points that have made me think, and I wanted to share them, for anyone else out there. They’re not definitive- what hurt me might help someone else, and vice versa. If you have your own positive or negatives to add, please feel free to do so in the comments.
- At diagnosis, don’t minimalise- don’t say ‘oh that’s the best kind of cancer (or other disease)’ or ‘that’s a really slow-growing cancer/disease- they should be fine’. Don’t assume that it is caught early. Cancer – even ‘types’ of cancer have such radical variation in them that a) unless you’re the oncologist involved in their care, you don’t *know* if it’s the best kind of cancer (the most virulent of breast cancers is an awful lot ‘worse’ than the ‘best’ kind of breast cancer) and b) your loved one may realise that it’s the ‘best kind’ of cancer, but right now they are assimilating the idea that someone they love HAS cancer. If they’ve just found out, they probably don’t know much more than ‘type’. Individual differences mean nothing right now- it’s ALL potentially bad.
- If they find out it’s terminal, and tell you how long they have left (usually a ‘best-case scenario’), the textbook way NOT to respond is to say ‘but you always say that’ (yes- I’m still bitter). Also, don’t say ‘it might be much longer – you don’t know’. It might be, but in my case it was actually much shorter and when you are talking weeks when you thought you had years, I suspect that ‘a month’ longer isn’t much solace in the grand scheme of things
- When someone tells you that they (or their loved one) has cancer, try and respond in a way that is relevant to them, rather than relevant to you- a lot of people said ‘I’m so sorry’ to me, and I was fine with that. But personally, the most helpful responses were ‘cancer is a b*stard’. It let me be angry momentarily, rather than forcing me to sadness. If the person tells you and you don’t know how to respond, DONT IGNORE IT, even if you think they want that- at the very least check out ‘would you rather not talk about this’- it is easy to misinterpret, especially if your loved one is in a state of grief.
- On that note, don’t assume that the person telling you is sad. I was, but I also had a *really* complex relationship with my dad, and actually, I was grieving a lot more than just the incoming physical death of my dad. I was grieving my childhood, the inability to be able to repair some of the things (because when someone won’t acknowledge that they don’t have long, you may not want to risk alienating them)
- If you want to help, offer specific help. Don’t be ‘there for you if you need it’, but BE THERE for them. Send a random text message every few days- don’t expect a response, but be mundane, make the connection. Remind people that you are there, because they probably feel quite alone. If you want to make them a meal say ‘I was thinking of making a lasagne tonight and wondered if you fancied a night off cooking- I make an amazing lasagne and would love to drop one round’. Offer a low-key visit; whatever feels appropriate.
- It’s hard to know what to say. It is. I’ve been on the other side also. And say that, but don’t *just* say that- that lays the responsibility on the person dealing with this. ‘I don’t know what to say, but I wanted to let you know I was thinking of you’ or ‘I don’t know what to say, so I made you a cheesecake’ are probably appreciated (especially if they like cheesecake. No-one made me a cheesecake, sadly)
- When death happens, or at any point in the process to be fair, if the person you love doesn’t have religion, DONT DO RELIGION ON THEM. If it is important to you to pray for them, or light a candle for them, do it. If it’s important for you that they *know* you’re doing this, ask who you’re trying to help. If they have never mentioned religion or are anti-religion, making statements about where you think their loved one might have gone (heaven, etc), it has the potential to be insulting and inappropriate, not to mention potentially alienating, and the last thing that person probably needs right now is to lose someone else from their lives.
- The funeral may take some time. Don’t assume it will all be over fast. It just isn’t always. Your loved one may also feel in a state of stasis at least until the funeral happens. Grief is complex.
Being on this side of the fence has taught me a lot about how I respond to death (or cancer) in other people. It has shown me some of the things I did wrong when a friend was diagnosed with cancer (some of the points above are based on things I’ve said too) and it has also underlined some of the things I did right. Maybe they will help someone else. The relevance for us as trainees is to remember that death probably isn’t that simple, and even a seemingly simple statement about a diagnosis *probably* isn’t that simple. I will forever be grateful for my therapist’s reaction when i told her- immediate compassion and recognition that it just wasn’t that simple.